Women in Mycenaean Greece

Reconstruction of a wall-painting from Thebes. Five women dressed in elaborate, brightly-coloured ruffled skirts, open-fronted tops, and headdresses, walk in a procession, holding offerings such as flowers. Photo: George E. Koronaios, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The wall-painting shown above, reconstructed from fragments found on the Mycenaean citadel of Thebes and dating from the Late Bronze Age (late second millennium BCE), shows a group of elaborately-dressed women taking part in a ritual procession: each holds an offering – a box, a bunch of flowers – in her hands, presumably to offer to the deity (goddess?) in whose honour this ritual celebration took place. But what do we actually know about the lives of women in Thebes and other parts of Mycenaean Greece – whether the elite who would have taken part in events like the one shown in this painting, or those lower down the social scale? For International Women’s Day today (March 8th), I’d like to look at some of the evidence we can use to try and reconstruct the activities of Mycenaean women.

In the written records from this period, the Linear B tablets, the majority of people referred to – by name, title, or occupation – are men; but by looking at the contexts in which women are referred to, we can get a good idea of their social and economic roles within the palaces whose administrative operations used these written texts. The largest numbers of women mentioned belong to work-groups under the control of the palaces, often listed by their occupation: textile workers (e.g. ‘linen workers’, ‘sewing women’, ‘women making headbands’), food producers (‘flour-grinders’), domestic workers (‘attendants’); others are listed by their places of origin, which might be within the territory of the palace in question or further afield – at Pylos, in south-western Greece, groups of women are listed from as far away as the coast of Turkey.

Elongated (‘palm-leaf’) Linear B tablet listing a work-group of women and children, on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Photo: author.

Although they are only rarely directly described as being enslaved, these origins, the description of one such group as ‘captives’, and the palace’s control over these women’s lives and work – as shown by the documents that record their numbers and the issuing of basic rations (grain and figs) or of raw materials to work with – imply that these women probably were effectively enslaved, or at the very least heavily or completely dependent on and controlled by the palace. Some groups are listed under the name of the man who was their supervisor and/or owner. Many of these groups include, after the number of women, a record of their children – presumably working alongside their mothers and learning their crafts.

‘Textile decorators: 12 women, 16 girls, 8 boys, 1 female supervisor, 1 male supervisor’ (Pylos tablet Aa 85, pictured above) ‘Amphikhwoitas’ slaves: 32 women, 5 older girls, 15 younger girls, 4 younger boys’ (Knossos tablet Ai 824) ‘Women of Alkaios, women of Phugegwrins: 2 units of wool’ (Thebes tablet Of 27)

Women at this level of society are rarely named individually, though there are exceptions; one tablet from the palace of Knossos on Crete, for instance, lists a large group of women, probably textile workers, by name – one is called Wordieya, ‘Rosie’. At Pylos a woman called Kessandra is listed as the recipient of a large quantity of rations – enough to support 20 workers for 20 days – and probably also as the supervisor to whom a group of male workers are assigned (for what type of work, we don’t know). She may simply be the supervisor of one work-group, or she may be much higher-ranking in the palace administration – unfortunately, there’s not much wider context in the records in which she appears, so it’s difficult to tell her exact role. (Incidentally, we don’t know the identities or gender of any of the writers of the Linear B tablets; it seems likely that most if not all of them were men, but it’s not impossible that some could have been women.)

The main sphere in which women with high-status roles appear in the tablets is that of religion. Women hold important religious offices – ‘priestesses’, ‘servants of the god(dess)’, ‘keybearers (of shrines?)’ – and, in these roles, also exercised economic power: controlling goods and personnel, and leasing plots of land (though, generally, in smaller amounts than those held by men with similar religious roles). Regular readers of this blog will remember the priestess Eritha, who was involved in a legal dispute over the status of her landholding, and her procrastinating colleague Karpathia the keybearer, who is recorded as failing to work as required on her plots of land.

‘At Pylos: the priestess’ slaves, on account of the sacred gold: 14 women’ (Pylos tablet Ae 303) ‘Eritha the priestess has and claims to have a [better kind of landholding] for the god, but the local authority say she has a [lesser landholding]Karpathia the keybearer has two plots of land and is supposed to work on both of them, but is not working’ (Pylos tablet Ep 704)

The evidence of the Linear B tablets, then, is that religious roles were the main way in which women held both social and economic power in the Mycenaean palaces – and this fits in well with the iconographic evidence in which they are frequently shown participating in religious practices, including wall-paintings like the one at the top of this post; similar ritual scenes involving women are shown on gold rings. From another angle, burial practices may also suggest a division between men’s and women’s social roles, with the latter being more limited than the former: in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, which date to the beginning of this period, both men and women receive lavish grave-offerings, but weapons and drinking cups made of precious metal are restricted to men’s burials; the iconography on these grave-goods tells a similar story, with the majority of figurative scenes showing men hunting or fighting, and very few depicting women at all. The symbolic emphasis, then, is on men’s activities as being more wide-ranging and more socially prominent than women’s.

Of course, the women buried in the Shaft Graves and most of the women named as individuals in the textual record will have been members of the very top ranks of society, by birth and/or by virtue of religious offices; with the exception of the largely nameless women workers recorded in the Linear B tablets, the lives of women at the bottom of the social and economic scale are, as ever, much less visible. Most Mycenaean women (like most Mycenaeans of any gender) will not appear at all in the very limited textual record, be buried with elaborate grave-goods, or be represented in elite iconography; outside of the palatial sphere, women will have been occupied with their own and their household’s survival through tasks like growing and producing food, making essential items like clothes, and taking care of children.

Clay figurine, painted in dark stripes, depicting a woman sitting on a chair, her breasts visible, holding a small child on her lap. Photo: Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

Much further down the social scale than the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, analysis of the skeletons from a cemetery at Khania showed that the women died on average about 10 years earlier than men (in their mid-20s), probably mostly due to the risk of death in or soon after childbirth; despite their younger age, they showed similar degeneration to the men in their spinal vertebrae, caused by heavy physical labour. The exact social status of these women is hard to determine, but they probably weren’t the poorest of the poor; the tombs in this cemetery are much less rich in grave-offerings than many others, but there were finds of clay vessels and jewellery. Nonetheless, their short lives of physical work and child-rearing will have been much more similar to those of most women in Mycenaean Greece than those of the relatively privileged Karpathia or Eritha, however restricted the importance of these elite women was to the religious sphere.

Enjoyed this post? You can also read my previous International Women’s Day posts on women’s writing in the ancient world and on the Linear B scholar Alice E. Kober, and check out the following publications I used when writing this post:

Barbara A. Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece. The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos (Routledge, 2014)

Review of Olsen 2014 by Dimitri Nakassis for BMCR

John Chadwick, ‘The women of Pylos’, in Jean-Pierre Olivier & Thomas G. Palaima, Texts, Tablets and Scribes (Salamanca, 1988), pp.43-95

Marianna Nikolaidou, ‘Looking for Minoan and Mycenaean women: paths of feminist scholarship towards the Aegean Bronze Age’, in Sharon L. James & Sheila Dillon, A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (Wiley Blackwell, 2012), pp.38-53

Sofia Voutsaki, ‘Age and gender in the southern Greek mainland, 2000-1500 BC’, Ethnographische-Archaeologische Zeitschrift 45 (2004), pp.339-363

Birgitta P. Hallager and Photini J.P. McGeorge, Late Minoan III Burials at Khania: The Tombs, Finds and Deceased in Odos Palama (Gothenburg, 1992)

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

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